A school is a laboratory for the human experience in the context of a distinct, intentional, and internally consistent mission and set of values.
I’ve probably worked over the concepts of mission, values, and intentionality to the point of saturation, but it has occurred to me—especially during these endless February weeks when spring teases us but when we and our students are perhaps closest to unraveling—that we are engaged in an endless process of human research and development.
I think I first heard from Steve Clem the factoid that teachers make something like 400 instructional decisions on the average day, and whether the number is too large or too small, these are probably the days when teachers feel the burden of these decisions most acutely. There is a missing element, I think, that explains the sheer exhaustion we feel and perhaps also why no school day is ever the same as any one that has come before: each of those decisions is freighted with an emotional component, the requirement to make judgments not just to get some point across but to respond to what the teacher believes are the immediate needs and and best interest of the student.
Now, it may be true that some teachers believe that the needs of their students at any given instant are solely about the academic issue at hand, with no consideration of such warm and fuzzy notions as “values,” “character,” or (heaven forbid) Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Such teachers might believe, in the moment, that what their students need is not sleep, security, self-esteem, moral exploration but a solid and unshakable knowledge of the Krebs Cycle, how to spell “pharaoh,” the pluperfect subjunctive, or the themes of The Scarlet Letter.
It’s never that simple, of course, and even moderately good teachers know this all the time and act on it most of the time. Sleep, security, and self-esteem do matter to how kids learn (duh!), and moral exploration is kind of what teenagers, at least, do for a living and what we want younger students to grasp as an important thing to do with their growing brains. The Krebs Cycle, spelling lists, and Hester Prynne’s travails play out against dynamic emotional backdrops of almost unbelievable subtlety and complexity. No wonder teachers appreciate vacations.
I’ve long been an adherent of the old concept of the teacher as observer, and I believe that the most successful and probably the happiest schools are those in which this role is acknowledged and encouraged, even if implicitly. Plentiful and thoughtful teacher talk, open communication and the rich (and respectful to the students) exchange of ideas, observations, best practices, failures, and puzzlements creates the culture of a think tank. The school becomes a mini-Los Alamos with its great object is to discover and implement the best way of teaching Kid X and Kid Y right now, tomorrow, and next year.
If a school’s faculty embraces the role of “think tank” and is both a brain trust and a “heart trust,” the discoveries will be made and renewed, over and over, responding to each child’s needs in the moment (and sometimes those needs are indeed to sit down and pay attention) all the while serving their long term needs and fueling their growth not as lifelong learners but as lifelong thinkers, creators, empathizers, and participants in the life of the mind and of society at large. Along the way the most effective educators and schools are amassing a bank of authentically “best” academic practices that we all need to be able to tap into.
I can’t help thinking that the Los Alamos effort helped “win” World War II, no matter how dubious the means its scientists created. We’ve arguably got a crisis of similar magnitude on our hands, and it’s obvious, I think, that the path to surmounting the world’s problems must start in the laboratories of the human experience that we call schools.